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The case of the Insolvent Debtors, and the charity due to
them, considered.-Preached before the Lord Mayor, &c. at St. Bride's, on Monday in Easter week, April 22, 1728.
MATTHEW, CHAP. XVIII.—VERSES 29. 30.
And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him,
saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not; but went and cast him into prison, till he
should pay the debt.
When we consider the various calamities and distresses under which many persons and families labor, and their utter inability to support themselves under these evils, it is some alleviation to observe with what diligence and application Christian charity has been at work to find proper methods for the comfort and support of such as are in misery and affliction.
This thought arises naturally from the business of this day. And surely this great and worthy city never appears more honorable in the sight of God and man, than when assembled for the sake and on the behalf of those who have nothing to plead for them but their misery; and nothing to return but their prayers.
As the charitable institutions under your direction and government have no use of riches or possessions but for the supply of the needy; the true way of estimating their condition is, to consider the proportion which their revenues bear to the
necessities of those who stand in need of their assistance. If the poor thrive and grow able to support themselves, the hospitals grow rich in proportion; if the poor and their wants increase, the hospitals themselves grow poor, and become the object of every Christian's charity.
. From hence it is evident, that whoever, by any methods of oppression or cruelty, adds to the number of the poor and miserable, does as truly act in opposition to these charitable foundations, and the end for which they are instituted, as if he took from them their possessions.
For whether you increase their burden, or lessen their maintenance, it is the same thing.
There are few who will suspect themselves to be chargeable with any design against these charities; and there are, I believe, few indeed who have any formed design against them. But if you consider the case in the view now opened to you, it may appear perhaps that there are many who act daily in opposition to this good work, increasing that burden, which is already almost insupportable.
There are many ways which men practise in oppressing the poor, which might properly fall under this consideration ; but I shall confine myself to that single instance, to which the text relates, the hardheartedness and cruelty which men use towards their
poor insolvent debtors. And I the rather choose to speak to this case, because men are apt to imagine that conscience has nothing to do in it, and that they are secure from any guilt so long as they follow in a legal manner the method prescribed by the law. Perhaps too, for a like reason, this iniquity has been less reproved than it deserves by the preacher; for fear he should be thought to condemn the law of his country.
I have no such fear; nor do I mean to condemn the law of my country, or to charge it with the cruelty of those who abuse it. If the law itself is severe, the more reason there is to be cautious in the use of it: but if men will turn the law, which was given them for the security of their property, into an instrument of oppression and revenge, the law is free, but they are guilty. And without doubt there have been many legal proceedings in courts of justice, which, when they come to be
re-examined in a higher court, the judge and the jury shall be praised for executing the law faithfully, and yet the prosecutor condemned for violence and oppression.
There is a plain difference between the laws made for the public good and safety, and those introduced in favor of private persons; only with respect to the first-mentioned laws, it is often criminal to conceal offences committed against them, or to compound for them with the offenders. To conceal treason is an offence of a very high nature ; for every man is concerned in the life and welfare of the king, and bound to defend him. To compound with thieves and robbers is criminal, for this plain reason among others, that whoever treats with a thief for his impunity, treats for a greater interest than he has a right to dispose of; for every man has an interest in bringing such offenders to justice; and therefore no can remit the penalty but he who has a right to act for the public, that is, the king only.
But as to the laws introduced for the sake of private rights and properties, the case is otherwise. For as every man may dispose of his own rights and properties as he thinks fit, so he is at liberty to use the methods which the law has provided for the recovery of his rights, or not to use them, as he pleases. In all these cases therefore the law provides the remedy, and leaves the use of it to the conscience of the party concerned.
Since then men are to be governed by the rules of reason and conscience in the legal prosecution of their own rights, I desire
you to consider with me what it is that reason and conscience and Christian charity require of us in the case now under consideration. The words of the text are part
of one of our Saviour's
parables. They do not contain an historical account of a fact, supposed to have happened just as it is related ; but here is a case stated by our blessed Lord, with such circumstances as he thought proper to support the inference to be drawn from it; and therefore the circumstances are to be considered as necessary ingredients in the judgment which he makes on this case. Observe then,
First, here is a debt supposed to be justly due. The poor man owed his fellow-servant an hundred pence.
Secondly, when the debt is demanded, he does not deny it, or refuse to pay it, but desires forbearance only till he could, by his labor and industry, raise enough to discharge the debt.
Thirdly, he asks even this as a favor, and with great submission : he fell down at his fellow-servant's feet and besought him. On the contrary,
Fourthly, the creditor comes with insolence and violence to demand his debt. • He laid hands on his fellow-servant,' and “ took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.' And when the poor inan besought him to have patience, he regarded him not, but hurried him away to prison; and for this behavior he is called, ver. 32. Thou wicked servant.'
Some of these circumstances seem to be added, to aggravate the cruelty of this wicked servant; such are they which describe the violence used on one side, and the submission and intreaty offered on the other. And the case commonly falls out to be so. Men are apt to demand their debts, especially from their equals or inferiors, with a haughtiness and roughness hard to be borne ; and yet the poor debtor is forced by necessity to take it patiently, and to be all submission.
But the circumstances on which the reason of the case depends, are principally these two : first, that the debtor was not able to discharge the debt at the time of the demand : secondly, that he was willing to do justice to his creditor, and to endeavor, by the best means he could use, to raise a sum sufficient to answer the demand. Therefore where either of these circumstances are wanting, the reason of the case ceases, and together with it all pleas for forbearance and compassion. Consequently every man is at liberty, in point of conscience, to use the method which the law of his country directs; to compel those to pay their debts who are able, but not willing
them. And in truth where this is the case, the creditor is so far from being justly chargeable with cruelty or oppression in making use of any legal method to recover his own, that the charge lies strongly against the other side. To delay poor traders or others in the payment of what is due to them, is always injustice, and sometimes very barbarous injustice. A poor man may perhaps lose his credit, which is the life of his business, or perhaps his liberty, which is the life
and maintenance of himself and family, for want of that very money which
detain from him : and when this happens, is it any compensation to pay the man at last what is owing to him? So far from it, that such a debtor, even when his debt is paid, may stand charged in conscience with the ruin of a poor family.
Another circumstance on which the judgment of our Saviour in this case depends, is, that there be a readiness and willingness in the debtor to do justice whenever he is able, and to use his best endeavors to enable himself to do it. Consequently all such debtors are out of this case who deny their just debts, or any part of them; and all such as may be justly suspected to conceal their effects in order to defraud their creditors; and such also as live idly and profusely, squandering the estate which ought to be applied to do justice to those to whom it is due. The reason of these exceptions may be made plain in few words. The present inability of a debtor is the argument for the delay and the forbearance; but this inability comes not into question where the debt itself is denied. And since the circumstances of men change so fast as they do, the man who wants forbearance this year, may in a few more be better able to pay the debt than the other is to forgive it; and what reason can be given why he should not ? Now he who denies the debt, declares intention never to pay it; which certainly will justify the other in endeavoring, by a legal method, to maintain and ascertain his right; and till the right is cleared, there is no room for one side to plead, or the other side to consider the arguments for pity and compassion.
The second exception relates to a case which is so manifestly fraudulent, that nothing can be said in its excuse. They who conceal their effects, and plead poverty deceitfully, are mere cheats, and deserve no compassion. To prevent such frauds, and to arm the creditor with power to compel a discovery, seems to me to be the chief view and design of the law, which puts the body of the debtor into the creditor's power ; and so odious is this deceit, that the law, in some cases and circumstances, has annexed to it a far greater penalty.
The third exception relates to those who oftentimes are free enough of their promises to do justice, and yet by their actions